The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Redistricting in the Spotlight

20 April 2011

U.S. states will be redrawing their congressional district lines this year to reflect changes in the 2010 Census data. Ostensibly to balance the representative interests among the different communities within those districts, the re-mapping is often in practice an exercise of political maneuvering. The Democratic and Republican parties can try to entrench their safe seats and improve their prospects in others. So far the redistricting battles have given us plenty of instances of this process at work.

In Louisiana arguments over a merger of the Boustany and Landry districts worried Republicans about their majority and led to a stand-off with Governor Bobby Jindal in early April, only resolved this week. Additionally at stake in the U.S. Department of Justice’s review of the new plan is the controversial creation of two districts in the north that the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus says unfairly splits representation for the black population. The power of veto has also been used in Virginia by Governor McDonnell claiming that the assembly’s redistricting plans cause too many splits in counties and cities. Opponents argue that this is a necessary result of demographic shifts particularly in Northern Virginia. In Colorado, frustration over a total of eleven different proposals from legislators led to Rep. David Balmer (R-Centennial) exclaiming that "We have to stop referring to Republican maps, Democratic maps, your map, my map…Let's start talking about our map, a bipartisan map." A bipartisan committee has duly been formed.

Why has the debate over the different partisan maps been so complex and uncompromising? Tied in with the decennial census, in theory we would expect the debates on redistricting to mirror census data. Indeed there were some significant demographic shifts in the 2010 Census. The biggest headlines concerned changes in racial demographics. At the national level it showed several new highs in trends. Hispanics were the fastest growing population, at 43 percent followed by the black population at 11 percent. Since the year 2000 there has been a 32 percent increase in individuals identifying themselves as multi-racial to 9 million. This change has a large level of variance among states. The highest, such as North Carolina, saw up to a 99 percent increase. Another important factor to consider in these debates is changes in the rigidity of partisan loyalties in today’s political environment. Some political commentators suggest that this has led to the perception that the party preferences of different communities are increasingly predictable and that redistricting inevitably will aim to harness these patterns.

It is unclear how these changes at the macro-level are influencing recent battles among redistricting decision-makers. Whatever the reasons behind this season’s redistricting, the prospects for a just electoral landscape are at a critical phase and it will require dedicated efforts by citizens and organizations as well as political leaders to improve the fair representation of elected officials in the U.S.

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                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin